By Gail Moore Woltkamp
Notable landmarks that were once part of my life and neighborhood, growing up in Independence, Kansas, are now gone. Some, I consider historically significant, not only to my life, but to the town and to the state of Kansas.
Something that seemed unprecedented, since the time we sold my childhood home in 2014, is that Mercy Hospital, part of the Mercy Hospital System, closed its doors, partially due to Kansas’s decision not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
The hospital closed in October of 2015, but months before that decision was final, the town had found itself losing doctors and its number of patient visits were declining. The result was no more hospital for the roughly 9,000-person community and for other areas it served in Montgomery County.
My beloved old neighborhood really is empty. The original part of the hospital, founded by the Sisters of Mercy and erected in 1927, along with its unique counterpart, an architecturally rounded addition, built around 1960, are both gone.
Like so many of my friends and family members, I was born in that hospital. My grandmother worked there as a registered nurse in the 1930s and 40s. My mom was a longtime volunteer for the Mercy Hospital Auxiliary and my dad was one of the first babies born in the newly constructed Mercy Hospital in May of 1928.
A welcomed solution
The hospital’s closing imposed a deeply chaotic and disgruntled impact on the community for obvious reasons. However, a welcomed solution came along two years later in 2017 with the opening of the Labette Health/Independence Healthcare Center, a rural health clinic with state of the art facilities, including an emergency room and small cancer treatment center. The facility is located further west of town, not in my old neighborhood.
Nonetheless, the efforts of Brian Williams, President and CEO of Labette Health, (nearby Parsons), who secured a $6 million dollar low-interest loan from the U.S Department of Agriculture, along with $1.6 million dollars, raised in local funding, helped create a winning alternative to a full-fledged hospital.
When I was growing up I attended Lincoln School, which was directly across the street from my house and East of the hospital. The white Art Deco school was architecturally and structurally sound, built under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1939-40. My memories of it are vivid and many of my closest friends, to this day, are ones who attended Lincoln.
I remember during my Kindergarten year, winter of 1971, we had a huge snowfall, nearly up to my waist in some parts of our yard. Because the streets had not been cleared in time for morning Kindergarten, my dad carried me across the street onto the steps of my Kindergarten class.
I have never forgotten that day–how special I felt because I lived so close to the school, and the effort of my dad to make sure I stayed safe and dry.
The bus kids to me, however, were the lucky ones. In extreme cases, if school was in session before the weather hit, they were often dismissed early. It seemed back then, school was always in session, and rain or waist-high snow, my across-the-street-residence gave me no excuses.
Shortly after closing it’s doors in 2011, Lincoln School was torn down in a plan involving the hospital and its need for a helicopter landing pad. The community adjusted okay to this change. Due to a shrinking population, Independence needed only two public elementary schools as opposed to three and found a way to secure a section of land and raise funds to build a new school on the other side of town.
Consequently, the helipad was used for only four short years due to the closing of the hospital. My mom missed hearing the school kids play on the playground during their recess time. It really was a welcomed and familiar sound that kept her company. Her view out of her screened-in-front porch for the last of the sixty years she lived in that home was unfortunately an empty lot.
Still a Vibrant Community
In recent years Independence has experienced a slight decrease in population and a change in its overall economic growth. Some of these factors were noticeable even before the pandemic hit, yet the town appears to sustain a vibrant, hopeful spirit.
The community has innovative leaders and dedicated citizens who keep their rich traditions alive, support their existing local businesses and look for ways through the Main Street program, Chamber events and festivals to keep volunteers active.
Neighbors helping neighbors improve their homes, residents coming up with new ways to enhance the downtown area, are all things that have helped the town’s viability.
My old neighborhood is different, yet sustainable. Its fight is long but worth its journey. 💛🍋💛